by M. A. DeWOLFE HOWE

    FREDERICK JACKSON TURNER was elected a Corresponding Member of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts on March 15, 1899. Through the period of his teaching at Harvard his name was transferred to the list of Resident Members, and at the Annual Meeting of 1914 he was elected President of the Society — a post which he held for two years. A resolution adopted at the Annual Meeting of 1916 contained these memorable words: “It has been much for a society like ours to have a leader who is universally recognized as an historical scholar of the highest distinction. The influence of his learning, of his refined scholarship, of his good taste and right feeling, and of his earnest and kindly nature, has made itself felt in every department of our associated activities.” When he left Cambridge and became professor emeritus, his name was placed again on the list of Corresponding Members, where it remained until his death at Pasadena, California, March 14, 1932, the last day of thirty-three years of continuous association with the Society. This space of a human generation, this third of a century, touches all of the four decades through which the Society has lived.

    Soon after Turner came to Harvard in 1910, he wrote, in an article on “The Harvard Commission on Western History,” in which he was the moving spirit: “It is necessary to recognize the fact that there is a New England vastly more extensive than that within her own sectional borders, a New England that is part of the life of the expanding nation.” While still a professor at Wisconsin, he had declared in the Atlantic Monthly (September, 1896): “To write of a ‘Western sectionalism,’ bounded on the east by the Alleghanies is, in itself, to proclaim the writer a provincial.” Behind these statements, and many others in the same vein, there was a spirit so truly unsectional that both in himself and in his work he was an invaluable unifying interpreter of East and West — each to the other. In Wisconsin, in Massachusetts, in California, he was always rather a national than a local figure.

    He was born at Portage, Wisconsin, November 14, 1861. Both his parents, Andrew Jackson Turner and Mary Olivia (Hanford) Turner, had come to Wisconsin from New York State. His father, commonly known as “Jack” Turner, was editor and part owner of the local newspaper of Portage, the Register. His mother was a schoolteacher. The Portage of his birth and boyhood was in itself a place that helped to make him what he was. “Here it was then,” writes Professor Carl Becker, of the journalist father, “before his very eyes, the past and present curiously joined together; the frontier in many stages — virgin forests, Indian villages, lawless raftsmen, fur trade, the rough frontier town a simmering pot skillfully stirred by the descendant of Connecticut Yankees who, in every generation since the seventeenth century, had got on the ‘wrong side of the hedge.’” Andrew Jackson Turner held no political position by appointment, but he was a Republican member of the Wisconsin legislature, attended the national conventions of his party, and is said to have had a hand in much of the Wisconsin legislation of his time. It is related also that the son went to the polls with his father to cast his first vote for president, but on the opposing side — which was presumably that of Cleveland against Blaine in 1884. Thus early he established himself an Independent in politics.

    Portage and Madison are in adjoining counties of Wisconsin, and it was foreordained that such a youth as Turner should proceed from the high school of his native town to the State University. There he distinguished himself in debating, and won prizes for “orations” in both his junior and his senior years. At his graduation in 1884 he received “second honors.” As an undergraduate he served as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, and showed his independence when a local political boss threatened to shoot him if he printed a certain piece of news — which he proceeded to do, and was not shot. His newspaper work continued for a year after graduation, and then he was appointed tutor in rhetoric and oratory at the University of Wisconsin, a post which he occupied through the academic years 1885–1888. One of his pupils at Wisconsin recalls as a memorable characteristic his “deep, vibrant, melodious voice,” which to another sounded “not deep, but full, rich, vibrant, and musically cadenced.” Like his unchangingly youthful appearance of alert vitality, the voice was something that its hearers did not forget. Comeliness of feature and form, the direct, searching, yet kindly look from clear grey-blue eyes, the impression of strength that springs from “fitness” rather than bulk, the fitness of the scholar to whom a trout-brook is no less inviting than a library — such were the physical qualities that contributed to his effectiveness as a teacher and in all the relationships of life. These are qualities that count in many directions — even, we may be sure, in such an episode of his early years as an officer of instruction at Wisconsin: there was a question about reappointing as an instructor the daughter of a certain professor; Turner championed her cause, to the extent of threatening to resign his own position if she were not reappointed, as — whether for this reason or not — she was. Something of knightliness seemed indeed to mark him without and within.

    During his first period of teaching at Wisconsin he accomplished enough graduate study to receive his master’s degree in 1888. Then he began at Johns Hopkins the more advanced work which won him the Ph.D. of that university in 1890. Before and after so doing, from 1889 to 1891, he was assistant professor of American history at Wisconsin. Then in turn he held, at his alma mater, the appointments of professor of history (1891–1892) and professor of American history (1892–1910). It was in 1910 that he came to Harvard, holding a foremost place among American historians and university teachers of history.

    His place among historians had not been won, in 1910, by any impressive output of books. Indeed there was only one, Rise of the New West, 1819–1829 (1906), Volume 14 in Professor Hart’s series, The American Nation: A History. A bibliography of his writings in Professor Carl Becker’s chapter on Turner in American Masters of Social Science (1927), edited by Howard W. Odum, contains thirty titles of publications preceding 1910, and seventeen more beginning with 1910 and ending with 1926. They were chiefly monographs, written for the benefit rather of scholars than of the general public, printed in such publications as the Johns Hopkins University Studies, the American Historical Review, the International Review, the American Journal of Sociology, and the Proceedings of historical societies, but, with all their diversity and distribution, possessing a unity of aim and method which made them clearly but portions of a single endeavor. Indeed when he came to publish his most widely known and influential book, The Frontier in American History (1920), the thirteen chapters of which it consisted were frankly described in the author’s Preface as “these essays in collected form.” They had all appeared before in print between 1893 and 1914, one of them in the Transactions of this Society for April, 1914. It should be added that his addiction to essays rather than books was a token of the perfectionist in him, whether as the scholar who refrained from publication until he could be reasonably sure that his “last word” was really the last, or as the artist and self-critic who would produce nothing but the best of which he felt himself capable.

    It was Turner’s function as an historian both to deal with the pioneer and to be a pioneer himself. In the words of Dr. Joseph Schafer, editor of the Wisconsin Magazine of History, in the September, 1931, issue of that journal, “Turner was by nature and nurture a humanist, but circumstances must have determined his choice of a specialty among the several fields of linguistics, literature, philosophy, and history, for each of which he manifested decided and apparently equal gifts.” Of the determining circumstances the same writer goes on to say:

    A good many years after the death of Herbert B. Adams, Turner told, with his never-failing good taste and respectful demeanor, about a difference in judgment which had once arisen between his Hopkins historical guide and himself. Adams, in directing the research activities of graduate students, as his publications show, was largely concerned about European vestiges in American institutions. . . . He did not, however, recognize with equal clearness the genetic forces which have been operative in American life and civilization. About the time that Turner’s class were ready to enter upon their active careers, Adams gave them a talk in which he stressed the point that, inasmuch as American history, both in its origins and its progress, had been pretty well covered in existing books, the young gentlemen would be well advised to cultivate the European field. This well-intentioned suggestion Turner found himself unable to accept. . . . In fact, he seems to have been unorthodox enough to suspect that the whole subject [of our national history] would require reworking from fresh points of view and with the aid of sources which thus far had been too little considered.

    So it was that he turned to the pioneers and himself became one.

    The unifying idea that ran through all his work is so familiar as hardly to call for definition — the idea that from the beginning of American history until the disappearance of the frontier in approximately 1890, it was the frontier, beginning with the western outposts of the colonies and moving through the better part of three centuries towards the setting sun, that gave to our history, and to our civilization, its distinctive quality. This was obviously an idea that involved a transfer of emphasis from the political and military aspects of history to the social and economic, and called into requisition for study and interpretation a widely scattered body of record, immediate and related, which had hitherto been regarded, in large measure, as negligible for historical purposes.

    From Turner’s first published piece of historical writing — The Character and Influence of the Fur Trade in Wisconsin (1889) — to his last — The United States, 1830–1850: the Nation and Its Sections, a volume that was nearly ready for its now assured publication when death put an end to his labors — he pursued his consistent course. The rewarding result was not merely a body of work remarkably integrated in purpose and method, and clearly representing an individual point of view, but also the extension of an influence which has profoundly affected the writing of history in the United States even in the generation of American historians which can no longer be called the younger. It was a significant testimony to this influence that the twenty-fourth annual meeting of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association, at Lexington, Kentucky, in April, 1931, devoted one of its sessions to the consideration of a paper by Professor Frederic L. Paxson, of the University of Wisconsin, on “A Generation of the Frontier Hypothesis,” presented also at the American Historical Association meeting of 1932. Ascribing this theory solely to Turner, by virtue of his paper on “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” read at the ninth annual meeting of the American Historical Association, in 1893, Professor Paxson declared:

    In the thirty-eight years since he promulgated this interpretation, American history has largely been re-written. No major American historian, however, has challenged Turner’s theory, and the bibliography of his critics would run to less than half a page. The thesis was accepted with amazing cheerfulness. The new crops of doctors of philosophy that were just making their appearance seemed to have adopted it as a matter of course.

    Another Mississippi Valley historian, Professor John D. Hicks, of the University of Wisconsin, noting that “the Turner thesis appeared at a time when Eastern historians held a virtual monopoly on the writing of American history,” designated it “in a sense a revolt of the western historians against the provincial ignorance of their eastern colleagues”; and also, “in a sense, a part of that wider movement of western protest which attained full growth with the appearance of the Populist party.” Turner more than thirty years before had deplored, as we have seen, the provincialism that writes of a “‘Western sectionalism’ bounded on the East by the Alleghanies.” Here, from the westward, as if in witness to the spread and acceptance of the Turner gospel, comes the reverse deprecation of the provinciality attending an Eastern sectionalism bounded on the west by the same mountains. Master and disciple between them bring Trojan and Tyrian to a common footing.

    The integration of Turner’s work as an historian is well matched with that which unifies him as a man and a teacher. Perennially young, keenly interested in learning, in living, and in persons; “forever the inquirer, the questioner, the explorer,” to quote again from Professor Becker, “a kind of intellectual Gentleman Adventurer.” Upon his pupils how could such an one fail to exert the most stimulating of influences? “From no other man,” writes — once more — Professor Becker, “did I ever get in quite the same measure that sense of watching a first-class mind at work, and not merely rehearsing for the benefit of others.” The roster of his pupils who marched from his instruction into the first ranks of American historical scholarship in the generation that has followed his own is filled with eminent names. In the year of his removal from Wisconsin to Harvard, 1910, the year also of his presidency of the American Historical Association, a collection of Essays in American History, Dedicated to Frederick Jackson Turner, assembled in his honor the work of the college and university professors of history, all gratefully conscious of what they owed to his teaching at Wisconsin, and passing on his influence to academic communities in Massachusetts, Louisiana, Oregon, and other states of the South and West. At Harvard, where he added distinction to the group already distinguished by the inclusion of Channing, Hart, and Haskins, he brought to a new body of undergraduates, and to graduate students from many universities drawn to Cambridge in no small measure with the specific object of “sitting under” Turner, the same quality of intellectual guidance and stimulus that had marked his teaching at Wisconsin. At Harvard he remained as professor of history from 1910 to 1924, when he became professor emeritus, a title which he held through his eight remaining years. It was entirely characteristic of him that a request from graduate students at Harvard that they be permitted to arrange for the painting of his portrait for the university was met by his counter-suggestion that the purchase of books for the Department of History would be a more profitable memorial; and that when a compromise was reached it took the form of his sitting casually for a crayon sketch by Alexander James, the youngest son of William James.

    The final years of his life were passed first at Madison and then in California, where from 1927 to 1932 he was attached, as research associate, to the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery, San Marino, of which his intimate friend of many years, Max Farrand, is the director. Under the same title of research associate he had been affiliated, while still at Harvard, in 1916–1917, with the Department of Historical Research of the Carnegie Institution of Washington; and in 1928–1929 he served as associate in American history at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. As the recipient of honorary degrees his name was entered on the rolls of the University of Illinois, Harvard, the Royal Frederick University, Christiania (now Oslo), and his own Wisconsin. The list of his memberships in state and other historical societies, and in learned bodies concerned with matters related to his wide range of interests, presents a formidable array. In his domestic life more than forty-two years of mutual devotion, sympathy, and happiness followed upon his marriage with Caroline Mae Sherwood, November 27, 1889, at Kenwood (Chicago), Illinois. Two of the three children of this marriage, a son and a daughter, died, respectively, at seven and five; their older sister, Dorothy Kinsley (Mrs. John S. Main, of Madison, Wisconsin), and Mrs. Turner are the surviving members of the family.

    If a personal reminiscence may be permitted, I should like to recall my visiting him in his study at the Huntington Library on a morning of early March, 1932. He was half-lying on a sort of sofa, with the pillows and posture that suggested a somewhat invalided existence. In the eight years, or thereabouts, since I had seen him he had aged in appearance no more, indeed rather less, than one must who had passed his seventieth birthday about three months before, and was known, after an operation and a slight stroke, to be in constant danger from a weakened heart. The bright intentness of his eye, the ruddy, smiling countenance were those of the Turner beloved of old by a multitude of friends. It was of his friends in the East that he wanted most to hear what I could tell him. His own remembrances came forth with an infectious merriment and quiet laughter. The details of the talk did not matter. What could not be forgotten was the impression produced by the man himself — vivid, alert, keenly interested in human beings and their thought, betraying neither pride in his own great achievement nor any disquietude that his work must be regarded as virtually done. The end, which, as he well knew, might come at any moment, was indeed near at hand. In his house at Pasadena, it came, less than a fortnight later, after a brief, serene consciousness that the hour was finally about to strike. The sense of loss which fell upon the Huntington Library and that last of several communities in which Turner had made himself rarely beloved was only the greater for the sharp realization that the loss transcended the local and was indeed national.

    As I write these final words, I happen upon their confirmation in two recent declarations of Professor Bernard Faӱ: “To a foreigner Frederick Jackson Turner seems to have been the great American historian of the past fifty years.” And again: “His recent death helps us to a better view of his greatness. He did, to be sure, leave a notable volume of work behind, but it is less notable than the influence he once exercised.”

    It may well be an enduring point of pride with the Colonial Society of Massachusetts that it paid him the highest honor within its gift while his great work and influence were still in their fullest living flower.954